Challenges of The Digital Age and Parenting
The attachment crisis of 2018.
Posted November 16, 2018
I originally wrote about this issue almost four years ago, and I'm saddened to report that the disconnect that happens as a byproduct of digital technology is worse than ever. Maybe I’m overly tuned in to it, but whenever I travel or hang out in public places there's a pervasive and painful dynamic of parents ignoring their kids because they're preoccupied with texting, reading their e-mails, or making phone calls. The attachment and attention that should be paid seems to be diverted to a digital gadget instead. Our cell phones, in particular, have become our lifelines, and iPads are electronic babysitters. Although they add convenience, I'm truly worried about the impact this has on a distracted parent's ability to consistently and appropriately engage in secure attachment with their child.
One powerful byproduct is kids are acting out more. I see this as a creative and desperate attempt to get their parents to connect and re-engage—and it makes sense! When you're competing with everything from online shopping to the Youtube video of the week, you need to up the ante to feel seen and heard. However, this creates a vicious cycle when parents get triggered by their kids' reactive behaviors and respond with either fight, flight or freeze, rather than the social engagement and affect regulation their child is needing. Many trauma studies point to a correlation between the intense triggering parents experience when their children cry and the conditioned trauma response of shutting down or fighting back with aggression.
- Parents in a fight response become angry, frustrated and verbally or physically aggressive. The anger can escalate because they have been pulled away from their phones or games.
- Parents in a flight or freeze state can use digital technology to increase dissociation and avoidance, causing their child to either act out more or shut down and dissociate too.
As I watch mothers who talk or text while they breastfeed and fathers who turn away to read their e-mails despite the fact that their kids are pulling on them for attention, I believe I am witnessing the ‘attachment crisis” of our times. Too many parents are modeling and encouraging the use of digital technology as a primary resource for affect regulation and connection by giving their kids electronic gadgets and cell phones at younger and younger ages. The end results include dissociation, discomfort with face to face interactions, and even digital addiction and withdrawal when parents attempt to limit their usage.
I realize this sounds like the Flintstone era to young parents and young clinicians out there. But trust me when I tell you that when I started raising my three sons back in the late 80’s not having all the current technology was a true blessing. We connected, stayed engaged longer, nurtured original and authentic creativity in our kids, slept better, felt less overwhelmed, had fewer car accidents, made more eye contact, had more play dates and quieter rest times. I'm convinced that being able to use their hands, minds, crayons, costumes, and Legos in childhood are the real reasons why they are so incredibly creative, smart, and socially connected today. Call me Wilma Flintstone, but I wish young families today had the opportunity to experience the simplicity of that. And as clinicians, we should pay close attention to parent-child attachments and the ways in which technology compromises it. If you can, urge the parents you work with to "power down" often and to keep digital technology out of young hands. If they do, they might discover something truly amazing—the joy of just "being with" their wonderful kids!